ALBANY - A series of new highway rest stops championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo may violate the law, adding a new layer to an ongoing dispute with the federal government and potentially jeopardizing millions in highway funding for the state.
The Federal Highway Administration has raised legal concerns over 10 newly opened or proposed rest areas.
That includes a much-heralded $20 million "Taste NY Welcome Center" that opened last month on Long Island's busiest expressway, as well as upgrades to existing facilities in Broome and Dutchess counties.
On Wednesday, state Transportation Commissioner Matthew Driscoll sent a letter to FHWA Administrator Gergory Nadeau acknowledging the federal government has raised legal concerns over the rest areas -- as well as hundreds of tourism signs erected on state highways.
At issue is a federal law that bans nearly all commercial activity at rest stops built after 1960 on the interstate highway system -- aside from vending machines, lottery terminals and the sale of tourism-related books, DVDs and media.
The rest areas may conflict with that law: They are all slated to have "Taste NY" stores, which offer New York-made food and other products for sale.
In a statement Thursday, Federal Highway Administration spokesman Neil Gaffney said the agency is looking into the legal implications of the Long Island rest area, in particular.
“FHWA is evaluating whether the (Long Island) rest area, which was not constructed with federal funds, conforms with applicable federal requirements," Gaffney said. "If the facility violates federal law, we intend to work with (the state Department of Transportation) to bring it into compliance both with the rest area and with the signage."
The rest-area dispute is the latest in an ongoing battle between federal highway officials and the Cuomo administration. The fight could threaten a portion of the roughly $1.7 billion in federal highway funding the state receives each year.
The USA Today Network's Albany Bureau reported earlier this month that the state DOT and Thruway Authority has erected 514 "I Love NY" highway signs across the state, despite the Federal Highway Administration issuing a 2013 ruling explicitly prohibiting them from doing so.
The state ignored follow-up warnings from the federal agency, with top state highway officials contending the signs comply with federal law.
As for the issues with the rest areas, Driscoll on Wednesday said they too are legal, calling them a "celebration of tourism, promoting destinations through apps, maps and localized material promoting area attractions." The state refers to the facilities as "welcome centers".
"We look forward to meeting with you and your team to address any outstanding issues regarding these initiatives as well as to detail the strong benefits to the traveling public that the department serves," Driscoll wrote in the letter.
Cuomo's administration announced Oct. 18 that the state would spend $55 million -- a $5 million increase from previous years -- on tourism initiatives, including upgrading or building the welcome centers.
The centers are slated for every region of the state, including the existing rest areas on Interstate 81 in Kirkwood, Broome County, and Interstate 84 in Stormville, Dutchess County. A new facility will be built along Interstate 190 on Grand Island near Buffalo.
Previously, the Dutchess and Broome facilities had vending machines, pay telephones and parking spaces. When construction is complete, they will both add Taste NY stores and I Love NY tourism displays.
Construction on several of the centers was already underway at the time of the announcement, including at the Long Island facility, which opened in late October, and a rest area in Montgomery County, which opened earlier this year.
Cuomo has repeatedly touted his role in imagining the welcome centers, particularly on Long Island.
Visitors to the 15,000-sq.-ft. facility on the Long Island Expressway are greeted by a large lighthouse replica, a model of a whale emerging from the ocean and a "Long Island Walk of Fame" honoring natives, including musician Billy Joel.
Speaking to Suffolk County Democrats last month, Cuomo said he was alerted to the need for a new welcome center after he witnessed a prostitute and drug sellers a few years ago while waiting with a broken-down car in the parking lot for a former rest area that once occupied the space.
He said he repeatedly stopped at the facility while it was under construction.
"So, yes, I went every Sunday to the Long Island Welcome Center," Cuomo said.
"I didn't like the color of the tiles in the restroom. I thought they clashed with the hallways. I never looked at the tiles in the ladies room. I hope they were good, but the problem is I couldn't check. It is beautiful."
In 1960, Congress passed a version of the Federal Highway Act that laid out new rules for states building rest areas on the federal highway system. It was updated in 2012.
Part of that law banned nearly all over-the-counter sales of food and other products, in part because a growing number of restaurants and stores popping up in rest areas across the country were discouraging motorists from exiting the highway and spending in local communities.
Facilities built before 1960 -- including many on the state Thruway -- were grandfathered in, allowing concessionaires to sell their product to this day.
But newer rest areas face much tighter rules.
Federal law allows only six types of commercial activity at the post-1960 facilities: vending machines; advertisements; "books, DVDs and other media" designed to promote tourism; the sale of tickets for historic or tourism-related events; travel-related information like maps; and lottery machines.
Any state that receives federal highway funding for its facilities on the interstate system are required to follow the restrictions.
In his letter, Driscoll claims the law's allowance of "other media" to promote tourism gives the state the green light for the Taste NY stores, which sell primarily food products.
Coincidentally, the federal government is currently seeking comments on the rest area rules around the nation, and Driscoll said the state intends to send in its thoughts.
"The roadside welcome centers complement and do not compete with full scale service vendors or local businesses," Driscoll wrote. "To date, approximately 1,100 local companies have participated in Taste NY, linking their products and the State's growing food and beverage market to consumers from across the globe."
Driscoll wrote that he is soon set to meet with the Federal Highway Administration to "address any pending issues."
Gaffney, the federal spokesman, said they are confident they "will be able to work with NYSDOT to resolve this matter in the coming weeks.”
Earlier in the week, Gaffney reiterated the federal administration's objection to the state's I Love NY highway signs, noting they "do not regulate, warn or guide traffic as all highway signs must."
"If the state fails to comply with the law, the penalty could include withholding federal funds," he said in a statement.